I read the news this morning with a professional interest. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman–variously described as drug “lord,” drug “kingpin,” or by the more corporate-toned business publications as drug “cartel leader”–has been captured after a second escape from prison.
I had to laugh a mirthless little laugh. Yes, they had captured El Chapo (translation, “the dwarf”). But me? I am still a free man. And they will never take El Cheapo–alive.
El Chapo: “You may capture me, but you will never take El Cheapo!”
I have expounded elsewhere on how I am genetically wired to be cheap. My surname is derived from the Middle English noun “chapman,” which in turn came from “cheapman,” a term that referred in the Middle Ages to itinerant peddlers, but which is now used by most people to convey a pejorative connotation of miserliness.
As Dan Qualye would say, I bear their scorn as a badge of pride.
My first stirrings of cheapness were inspired by necessity, that mother of invention that is so rarely cited on Frank Zappa albums. When I was in high school I wanted to buy record albums, but had no free cash flow besides my lunch money–$6.25 a week, $1.25 per school day. Record albums were $5 then, so I was faced with a hard choice: go hungry, or give up all hope of ever getting down with my bad self.
As I sat at the cafeteria table one Monday, wondering how I was ever going to be able to afford The Rolling Stones’ 12 X 5 or Otis Redding’s Dictionary of Soul, a ray of light fell through the Pittsburgh-Corning glass block windows manufactured on the west side of town and came to rest on Brad Dworpkin’s uneaten sweet potato, green beans and Salisbury steak. A thought bubbled up from my subconscious mind, and gave birth to the words that purchased a hundred LP’s:
“Are you going to finish that?”
“No,” Brad said, as he was about to launch the sweet potato to the cafeteria ceiling through an elaborate lever-and-fulcrum catapult he had fashioned from a fork, a squashed milk carton and his fist. “But I need the sweet potato for my payload.”
We lived in a town where Minuteman missiles were stored in underground silos, insuring that our little county seat would be incinerated first by the Russkies in the event of a nuclear holocaust. As a result, local teenage boys were acutely aware of the need to defend our country through anti-ballistic missile defenses, which we practiced assiduously as soon as the principal’s back was turned.
“That’s fine,” I said, giving him a look of brotherly resignation that soldiers, sailors and airman exchange before embarking on dangerous missions. “I don’t really need the beans either,” I said, an act of grace on the launching pad I hoped he’d remember the next day, when the menu item (as reported in the local newspaper) was beans ‘n franks.
And so began a life of cheapness that I live to this day, often at the edges of social groups where my virtue–which others consider a vice–passes undetected. Thus today, when I was at the local dump/transfer station/recycling center, I surreptitiously picked deposit bottles out of the dumpster while I put non-deposit wine bottles in! It amazes and shocks me that there are people who discard beer bottles, forsaking the five cent deposit they carry as a fiat currency. I want to ask the trendy young dads ushering their kids around for a fun Saturday what in the hell they’re thinking as they give their children a bottle to throw into the dumpster. “Would you,” I said one day, after I could finally restrain myself no longer, “teach your children to throw a roll of nickels in there? I didn’t think so!”
Why pay more? Than nothing?
While I am the principal beneficiary of my cheapness–wearing clothes I find in wastebaskets and snowbanks–others benefit as well. In some cases, the rewards aren’t visible on the shimmering surface of things, but instead act as powerful subterranean forces that emerge–like an underground river–at a point far from the here and now. I once found one of those nice Danish dish racks at the town dump that cost more than a hundred dollars when you buy them in stores. I brought it home, dusted it off and gave it to my wife as a present. After she’d thanked me profusely, I told her the story behind the gift, and how I’d invest the $100 I saved in a zero-coupon Treasury bond which would mature about the time we were ready to retire, thereby allowing us to lead a life of comfort and ease in our golden years.
She was–quite literally–speechless.
I don’t think she said anything to me for the rest of the weekend.